WI Could Still Get Higher Speed Rail
Minnesota is hatching a Twin Cities-to-Milwaukee-to-Chicago plan, putting Gov. Walker on the spot.
In 2008, California voters approved a proposal to create high speed rail going 200 miles per hour from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Despite funding challenges, the project is expected to break ground next year. The economic rationale is powerful: it would better connect the two largest cities in California, the world’s ninth largest economy.
Yet if you look at the corridor from Twin Cities to Milwaukee to Chicago, you could make just as strong an argument for a better rail connection. While LA and San Francisco have a combined population of 17.1 million, the three Midwestern cities total 14.4 million people, and are the home base for 22 Fortune 500 companies (including five in Milwaukee) compared to just 13 for LA and San Francisco.
As for connecting high speed rail to airport travelers, the airports of LA and San Francisco have 53 million combined boardings per year while the three Midwestern cities total 52 million combined boardings at their airports.
Nor is the distance by rail that different. San Francisco to LA is 378 miles compared to 429 miles for Twin Cities to Milwaukee to Chicago. But there is already a long-established rail line for the three Midwestern cities, while the train from San Francisco goes to Bakersfield but there is no rail corridor through the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles Basin, which will add considerable costs to California’s venture.
Across the globe, trains work best on shorter trips between highly populated cities. According to the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, more than a million people travel annually between Chicago and the Twin Cities by air and more than 10 million by car. Those numbers will continue to rise, as metro area growth by 2040 is projected to be 34 percent in Twin Cities and 28 percent in Chicago. High speed rail (200mph service) would mean Chicago was little more than 2.5 hours away from Twin Cities, while Milwaukee and Minneapolis would be less than a two hour trip.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker famously refused the $820 million in federal funds to create a 110 mile per hour rail connection from Milwaukee to Madison (extending the existing route from Chicago), and there’s little sign of that idea being revived. But there is increasing momentum to strengthen the rail connection between Chicago, Milwaukee and Twin Cities, with some of it even winning Walker’s support.
Ridership increased 132 percent between 1997 and 2012 on the Amtrak Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Chicago, rising from 361,000 to 838,355 riders annually — more than double the 55 percent increase nationwide for Amtrak.
In response to this, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation plans to add trains to the route, boosting the number of daily trips from seven to 10. Moreover, these would be express trains, stopping only at Mitchell International Airport between the two cities. This would increase the train’s average speed and reduce its travel time by 11 minutes, which is likely to further increase its popularity.
Meanwhile, ridership grew by 16 percent from 2011 to 2012 on the Amtrak Empire Builder line that links Chicago, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and points west to Seattle. In response, Amtrak is studying the possibility of adding a second round trip per day to this line. And Minnesota and Wisconsin have agreed to split the bill for this study, projected to cost $125,000.
That’s an interesting decision for Walker, who has pleased conservatives with his anti-train rhetoric. If Amtrak finds a second trip makes sense, then the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois would have to come to a cost-sharing agreement for capital and operation costs for that portion of the line before the project could proceed. Both Minnesota and Illinois, whose leadership is pro-rail (and would pay much less as most of the route goes through Wisconsin), are likely to approve the idea, which will put Walker in a tough position. If he says no, he looks anti-growth. If he says yes, then why didn’t he take the federal money for Madison to Milwaukee, which could have helped pay for the Chicago to Twin Cities route?
None of these proposed additions, by the way, involve high speed rail but are simply for conventional trains, which can go anywhere from 79 to 90 miles per hour at peak speed. But another plan being studied by Minnesota’s Department of Transportation could bring higher speed rail of up to 110 miles per hour — and six to eight trips per day — from Twin Cities to Milwaukee to Chicago. This reduce the total trip time from 8 hours to 6 hours or less, depending on the number of stops made.
Walker has refused to split the cost of this study, but Minnesota has gone forward on its own, with the help of $15 to $18 million federal funding for high speed rail, including $5 million from Florida, where the governor turned down the federal funds, according to Dan Krom, in charge of Intercity Passenger Rail for Minnesota’s Department of Transportation. (Wisconsin’s forfeited funds went elsewhere.)
“Eventually we will need Wisconsin to be a partner (in paying for the creation of higher speed rail), but we are years away from that reality,” says Krom. The study may not be completed until 2015, but an earlier projection estimated the total cost could be $2.4 billion, including $900 million for Minnesota (meaning the costs would be in excess of $1 billion for Wisconsin). “These estimates are dated and we are in the process of updating ridership, revenues and project costs,” Krom notes.
In short, rail will again be an issue when Gov. Walker runs for re-election, and he will be placed in a bizarre position. He supports more rail to both Chicago and Minnesota, but won’t even pay for a study of higher speed rail in this corridor, signaling his adamant opposition. In short, he favors the slowest train travel he can get. Yes, it’s cheaper, but as an opponent might note, you get what you pay for. What feels more like the future, a train traveling up to 90 miles per hour or one going up to 110 miles per hour?
Beyond that is the issue of Madison. There was $820 million in federal funds that could have been used to connect the state capitol with Waukesha County, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Moreover, it would have placed two Wisconsin cities at the center of the Twin Cities to Chicago line, a boon to both Madison and state’s economy. It would have also had stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc, and Watertown.
It looks like we’re going to get more rail from Chicago through Wisconsin to Twin Cities anyway, but Walker is doing everything to make sure it happens in the slowest, most antiquated way possible, and with the fewest stops in Wisconsin.
Business leaders in Wisconsin favor more train travel to Chicago, favored the Kenosha-to-Milwaukee commuter line which the legislature killed and would likely favor higher speed rail from Chicago to Twin Cities, which would better connect 22 Fortune 500 companies. Better transportation, whether by car, plane or train, is always seen as a plus by business leaders. Ultimately, Harnish predicts, true high speed rail of 200 miles per hour will come to this nation at the urging of business leaders. And Milwaukee, as the smallest region, could benefit the most from a high speed, Chicago-to-Twin Cities line. “It’s really up to the Milwaukee business community to make some noise about it,” Harnish says.
Most business leaders, however, are unlikely to do so during the next gubernatorial campaign, as they won’t want to hurt Walker’s chances of getting reelected. But it’s certainly possible to imagine a pro-business Democrat making this a key issue in the campaign, combining it with the issue of jobs growth, and dubbing Walker as the slow growth and slow trains governor. Not enough, perhaps, to unseat an incumbent governor, but the rail discussion could dramatize a hugely-important issue for the future of this state.
-AOL’s decision to slash its Patch.com websites, laying off 500 of its 1000 employees nationally, looks like it could kill those sites in the Milwaukee metro area. Five employees were let go, including Mark Maley, a former middle-level editor with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and seven more are expected to go in October. Patch.com is very suburbs-oriented and didn’t cover the city of Milwaukee, so the loss will come for suburban readers.
-Meanwhile, Urban Milwaukee will celebrate its fifth anniversary this Friday, August 30th, on the rooftop of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, starting at 6 p.m. It’s really meant as a bash for you, our loyal (and very opinionated) readers, so there should be plenty to talk about. I’ll be there, along with Dave and Jeramey and many of our contributors, and we’d love to see you. It’s free but you do have to RSVP here, so we can better plan for the turnout.